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Trouble on the Golan: Rabin’s Prescience

Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk begins his book on the Clinton administration’s Mideast diplomacy with the initial focus on brokering peace between Israel and Syria, then led by Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez. Assad’s demand was a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for a full peace. The Israeli prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, was open to it both because he wanted real peace with Syria–Israel already had a longstanding peace agreement with Egypt, a certain level of cooperation with Lebanese officials and armed forces, and a relationship with Jordan that was a peace agreement in all but name, which was finally signed in 1994–and because he thought it would encourage the Palestinians to want peace as well.

He was right about the latter point, though the Palestinians would end up hijacking the entire process and peace with Syria never happened. But ahead of a trip to Washington to meet with Clinton, Rabin wanted to know how the U.S. would guarantee the peace, as Indyk phrases it, “especially in the event of Asad’s death.” Would Clinton put American troops on the Golan, if it came to that and Israel was proscribed by the peace agreement from sending its own troops? Clinton asked Colin Powell for his advice. Indyk recounts the exchange:

“No military officer would want to give this up,” Powell replied. He then surprised everyone by arguing that the only way Israel could be convinced to withdraw from the Golan Heights would be if the United States were prepared to insert a brigade of American troops–some four thousand GIs–on the Golan. Unlike the Israel-Egypt peace treaty observer force deployed in the Sinai, which contained only one battalion of American troops, he said the Golan deployment would need to be a full-fledged fighting force to signal Syria and the Arab world that if they broke the peace agreement they would have to tangle with the U.S. Army.

“It would be worth it,” the president responded.

Obviously none of this ever came to pass, but Israeli withdrawal from the Golan has been sought by Assad the younger, as well as current Secretary of State John Kerry as of just before the Arab Spring. But on this, as on many aspects of Middle East policy, the Arab Spring has changed the calculus. Rabin, however, has proven prescient. Not only was he right about the Palestinians coming to the table when they thought they might be sold out or eclipsed by the Syrians, but he also understood that if Israel were to withdraw its civilians and troops and keep them out of the Golan, the peace treaty would need real teeth.

You can see from the Powell-Clinton conversation that Rabin also understood the danger of Golan withdrawal better than they did, though Powell was quite serious about what it would take to enforce it. The problem as Rabin saw it was not the worry that Assad would break the deal–though of course that was a concern–but rather that in Assad’s absence, and the possible resulting anarchy or new regime, the agreement would essentially be nullified.

Fast forward to today, as Reuters reports just why Israel has always worried about giving up the Golan in the event of the death or overthrow of the regime with whom they would have signed the deal:

Austrian U.N. peacekeepers, fearing their safety due to fighting in Syria, will assess on a daily basis if they can stay to monitor a truce between Israel and Syria, Austria’s foreign minister said on Friday.

Israel is anxious for the peacekeepers to remain, worried that the Golan will become a springboard for attacks on Israelis by Islamist militants fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The article notes that Japan and Croatia have both said they were going to withdraw their own soldiers from the peacekeepers. Austria’s absence would leave a void: Reuters says they make up 380 of the 1,000 peacekeepers. Additionally, how feasible would it be to replace them under these conditions? Peacekeepers have been attacked and kidnapped as the civil war has progressed, and Israel has already had to respond to shelling from Syrian territory.

All this, it should be noted, is happening with Israel still controlling the Golan. The threat is therefore extant but limited. Were the Golan in Syrian hands, the situation would be a chaotic security crisis for Israel, especially when combined with the tense border standoff with Hezbollah in south Lebanon (and Gaza to the south). Had Clinton’s plan been implemented, and all else equal–though I should stress the futility of playing “what if?”–American troops might now be involved in a land war in Syria trying to tamp down an insurgency. In such a case, could American troops withstand the attempts to draw them into nearby Lebanon as well, which would certainly come at some point?

Again, it’s all speculative. But it’s also clear that when Israeli leaders stress the need for defensible borders, they usually know exactly what they are talking about. And when they say that a durable peace agreement, especially in an era of falling dictators, must have popular support–as they do when they criticize Palestinian incitement and government-sponsored anti-Semitic indoctrination–they’re right about that too.


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